AnneMarie Luijendijk studies an ancient advice manual for the religious

A tiny booklet from the fifth or sixth century offers 37 “answers” to life’s questions.
A tiny booklet from the fifth or sixth century offers 37 “answers” to life’s questions.
Courtesy AnneMarie Luijendijk

Hundreds of years ago — long before there were horoscopes in the newspaper to forecast the future — people anxious about their lives might visit a priest or a monk. Religion professor AnneMarie Luijendijk believes that some priests who lived in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century would, before offering advice, consult a tiny booklet with 37 “answers” to life’s questions.

Either the “client” or the priest would choose one of the Christian oracles — perhaps by randomly opening the booklet, though God was believed to be behind the selection. The priest would interpret the text in a way that applied to the situation, Luijendijk says. The advice was ambiguous enough to fit with many situations, much as horoscopes do today.

Luijendijk
Luijendijk
Courtesy AnneMarie Luijendijk

Luijendijk first came across the book, which is from the fifth or sixth century, as a graduate student at Harvard, when she was asked to examine it by a university curator. The book had been donated in 1984 but never had been studied. The parchment pages of the palm-sized booklet were dirty on the margins, evidence of its being handled frequently, she says.

Luijendijk suspects that Harvard’s booklet, known as a lot book, belonged to a Coptic priest or monk who worked at a shrine in Egypt. This kind of divinatory practice was frowned upon by church leaders at that time, perhaps explaining why the book was so small — it could be concealed easily. Luijendijk’s new book, Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary, will explore the booklet’s provenance, divination in the ancient world, and the ways in which everyday people “sought divine input, to get God on their side when they had to make decisions,” Luijendijk says.

She was struck by the use of the word “gospel” on the first page, where the book is described as “the gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the archangel brought the good news.” (The booklet was written in a dialect of Coptic and translated from Greek, she believes.) Since “gospel” means “good news” in Greek, she surmises that those who used the book felt “that they would get good news from this little book, and that is, of course, what everybody wants and yearns for.”